In which things get worse before they get better.
Despite the possibility of being hit by rounds discharging in the fire, Jase threw back his blanket and sat up. The two men standing before him stared wide-eyed as Jase raised his single-shot pistol and fired. A crimson bloom flowered on the first man’s chest as the second stumbled back, fumbling for his weapon.
Jase brought up his revolver and drew a bead. All his hours of training in the heat and cold meshed with sinew and bone as Aunt Anna’s voice rattled in his head: ‘Front sight, Jase. Concentrate on the front sight.’ His pistol barked and the second man went down.
Feet planted, he stood in a hornet’s nest of swirling embers, the golden sparks needling his skin
as the shadowy forms of his attackers materialized from the darkness. Jase’s ear rang with the detonation of cartridges and screams of the wounded as he dispatched one bandit after another.
The pistol’s hammer fell with a deafening click. He was empty.
Scooping up a fallen blade, Jase had just enough time to raise it and deflect a cudgel blow aimed at his head. The shadowy giant before him lifted the weapon for a second blow as Jase dropped to his knees and slammed the blade into his attacker’s foot. The giant yowled in pain as Jase yanked the blade free, then rose to bury it in his chest. The big man looked at Jase in astonishment then fell backward onto the coals.
“Lay down your weapons, boy, or your friend dies.”
Panting, Jase looked up to see Takoda backed against the stage. The young monk bounced lightly on her toes prepared to engage the half dozen bandits surrounding her. A half dozen more lay prone at her feet. Judging by the sound of groans coming from the darkness, Jase guessed there were more injured he couldn’t see.
But the men surrounding Takoda were not attacking. They held her at bay with blade, spear, and gun.
“Did you hear me, boy?”
The bandit leader stepped from the group and turned to face him. He was a portly man with long, greasy hair braided down his back and a wormish purple scar stretching across his cheek.
“There ain’t no bounty for your friend, Jase.”
At the mention of his name, Jase stepped back in surprise.
“So, whether we leave her corpse out here for the coyotes or take er’ with us is up ta you.”
Jase looked around at the ragtag band of attackers. Though the ground was littered with bodies, a full dozen or more still stood. A smile came to Jase’s lips. There would be no victory, but there would be vengeance. He would take this man with him if it was the last thing he did.
Then his eyes fell on Takoda. The young monk was hardly more than a girl. She’d sacrificed everything to help him. The lust of battle drained away in a single breath, and Jase let the sword fall from his fingers.
In the silence of a heartbeat, the chubby man looked to Jase and smiled.
swoosh, swoosh, SWOOSH. THUD!
Like quicksilver lighting, a gleaming blade materialized from the shadows and imbedded itself in the leader’s chest. His tormentor's eyes shot suddenly wide before rolling back in his head. He flopped onto his back and lay still, the gleaming kukri blade still vibrating in his chest.
Whether it was Gage’s war cry or Takoda’s angry howls that scattered them, by the time Jase had rolled across the ground and scooped up the bandit’s pistol, the rest of the attackers had fled.
Gage strode into the circle of light, his bejeweled flintlocks smoking in his hands.
“John!” Takoda crossed the intervening distance in a single monstrous bound. The two friends’ clasped hands with a meaty pop. “I knew you’d join us.” Takoda looked to Jase, her face beaming. “See? Didn’t I say he’d come?”
Jase shook his head. “I don’t remember you saying that.”
“Well,” Takoda said, “If I did not say it I should have. I have been thinking it the whole time.”
The bandit laying atop the coals burned brightly and filled the air with the stink of burnt hair and scorched flesh. Gage grabbed the man’s feet and dragged him from the coals before retrieving his kukri blade from the leader’s back.
“I ain’t said I’m joinin’ ya,” Gage said, “I just couldn’t stand by knowin’ you’d be slaughtered.”
Jase stepped up to the knight and extended a hand.
“For whatever reason you chose to follow,” he said. “I’m grateful.”
Gage cocked his head and examined the outstretched hand before taking it. “You’re welcome.”
As Jase turned to consider the carnage, one of the bandits groaned to her knees. Jase leveled his pistol but didn’t fire. He was out of ammunition. When the bandit stumbled into the night, Jase noted the knight’s nod of approval. He’d wanted to kill but hadn’t, the mercy forced upon him by the Goddess. He lowered the pistol in shame.
“We’re safe for now,” Gage said. He picked up what remained of the firewood and dumped it onto the fire. “But once they regroup, they’ll be back.”
The twigs crackled to life and lit the ugly scene in a jittering yellow glow. A half dozen bodies lay dead and twice that many unconscious. At Gage’s suggestion, they rounded up the bandit's weapons and the remaining supplies and stacked them by the fire. As they worked, Gage stood guard. Whenever one of the raiders awoke from their slumber, Gage escorted them into the darkness, oftentimes accompanied by a kick in the butt.
“That should do us,” Gage said eyeing the bandit’s belongings. “If you two don’t have weapons, I suggest you pick something out.” He turned and glanced over his shoulder.” And pack up whatever gear you’ve got, I’m gonna get the horses.”
Gage strolled out of camp, returning minutes later atop a jet-black charger. He had two additional horses tethered behind him; a sturdy looking roan and a thick legged bay.
While Gage was gone, Jase sorted through the bandit’s gear and recovered an odd-looking pistol with a wooden handle somewhat like a broom. It had a blocky, black frame and an opening on the top in which bullets could be inserted. The woman who’d owned it carried a belt of ammo with the cartridges stored on metal strips of ten rounds each. Takoda, despite protests she didn’t need one, was persuaded to grab a double-barreled shotgun and a sack of shells.
“Y'all ready?” Gage asked, swinging down from the saddle.
When he spotted Jase’s new gun, he cocked his head in surprise. “Where’d you get that?”
“Have you seen one of these before?” He passed Gage the weapon. “I’ve never seen it’s like.”
Gage turned the pistol in his hands, his brows rising in appreciation. “This gun is reserved for Solar Knights,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be released to the public for another two years. Not ‘til the next Discovering.”
“Discovering?” Jase cocked his head like a curious pup. “I’ve heard of it, but the last one was before I was born. I thought it was just a big celebration. A way for the church to celebrate its ties with the nobility and merchants.”
“Oh, it’s that and more,” Gage said. “It’s when the church releases the next approved round of technologies. It’s how they maintain power, by controlling the release of knowledge and ensuring their own people always hold a technological advantage.” He nodded towards the pistol. “Like the weapon you hold now. It’s a semi-automatic called a Mauser. Restricted to the Cardinal’s personal guard and the church’s most elite squads” He handed the gun back. “A far cry better than these old flintlocks of mine.” He looked around the camp. “Which one had it?”
Jase led him to the body of a thin woman with a blue scarf headdress and the bangles of a gypsy. A bullet hole creased her once smooth forehead. Gage dropped beside her and pulled back her shirt revealing the thin black armor beneath.
“That’s what I thought,” he said. “This is no gypsy. She’s dressed as one but has no scars or tattoos.”
“What do you mean?” Takoda asked.
“Gypsies mark themselves to honor fallen clan members and to commemorate great acts in their lives. A gypsy this old would be covered in markings.” He pushed to his feet with a groan. “Not to mention the armor. Gypsies don’t wear body armor.”
He glanced at Jase’s pistol. “An’ they don’t carry such armament.”
Gage stared into the darkness gnawing his lip. “We’ve wasted too much time,” he said. “We can discuss this on the trail.”
Jase gathered his pack and slung it across his horse’s flank. “Are these the stage horses?” he asked. “I think this is the lead bay”
“Yeah, they’re from the stage.” Gage turned to face them.
“I heard rumors ‘bout a bounty on the Texas King, so I decided ta follow ya.” He looked from Jase to Takoda. “I couldn’t stomach what they might do to you, Takoda.” He looked at Jase and smirked. “10,000 credits alive and 2,000 dead.” He shook his head. “I figured if someone was willin’ to pay that kinda cash, then maybe you was tellin’ the truth.”
He hiked a thumb over his shoulder. “Ran into the driver and his pal about ten kilometers back. It didn’t take much convincin’ for them to spill the beans. They’d been paid 200 credits to abandon you on the trail.” Gage looked at the two horses. “I convinced them these two mares were ample reimbursement for the trouble of leavin’ you two high an’ dry in the middle of nowhere.” A wry smile cracked his face. “Believe it or not, they whole-heartedly agreed.” He dug into his pocket and held up a piece of paper. “Even signed a bill of sale.” He jammed the paper back in his pocket. “Always best ta keep things legal.”
“I knew this was no random hijacking,” Takoda said. “when I heard that man call you by name.”
Jase nodded. “It’s my uncle. My aunt told me he had connections on Luna.” He shook his head. “I never figured he’d find me so fast.”
“This goes way beyond your uncle,” Gage said. “I don’t know who that woman is, but she’s no local thug. Whoever sent her has power.”
“So, you will join us?” Takoda asked.
Lips pursed, Gage considered Jase for a long while. Finally, he said. “Do you have some token that what you say is true?”
Jase pulled the signet ring from beneath his shirt and held it out for Gage to see. The knight took it and stepped to the fire. He rolled it in his fingers and examined it in the light.
“Damn it.” He kicked at the dirt and handed back the ring.
“Who sent you?” he asked.
“Her grace, Cardinal Suzanne Veraldi,” Jase said. “From the seminary in New Ottawa.”
“And where is it you’re going? Takoda mentioned something about an Oracle?”
“Yes. That’s what my mother told me. I must find the Oracle and show him the ring.”
Jase heard the old knight grumble beneath his breath, “I’m gettin’ too old for this shit.”
The muscles in Gage’s jaw clenched and unclenched as he pinned Jase beneath his glare. With a sigh, he dropped to a knee.
“Will you accept my service, Jase Hildebrand of Texas?”
Not knowing what to say, Jase mumbled an embarrassed, “Uhh, I guess.”
Gage looked up and rolled his eyes. “In that case.” Gage bowed his head.
“I pledge to serve thee without fear. In the face of thy enemy, I will be brave and upright that the Goddess may love thee. I swear to speak the truth always, even if it means our death, to protect the helpless in your name, and do no wrong, until our task is complete, or I am released from your service by the Goddess’ final rest or your word of release.“
Even on his knees, Gage was eye to eye as he looked at Jase awaiting his reply.
Jase would have preferred remembering the proper response based on some ancient ceremony he’d witnessed in his father’s court. Or simply because he was king, the knowledge might have been magically transported into his head. Instead, he remembered the correct words from his favorite cartoon as a boy: Boomer Baker and the Space Knights of Pluto.
“And I accept your oath,” Jase said, “Honor for honor and vow for vow, until the task be complete, or the Goddess release us from our duty.”
Gage stood and brushed off his knees. “Now that that unpleasantness is behind us,” he said. “I suggest we mount up and be on our way.”